Bringing Taglit Birthright Israel to Smaller Communities
by Evan Levitt
When I was growing up in the suburbs of Baltimore, my parents had picture of a bicycle and a motorcycle on a wall in our basement. The caption read “You can tell the men from the boys, by the price of their toys.” I was always attracted to this picture, most likely because it was hanging near the table where I completed my homework assignments.
Twenty years later, I found myself talking to a Major Donor and Board member from the Monmouth County Jewish community. He and I were sharing stories about my recent experience leading a Taglit Birthright Israel trip, and his grandson’s experience on a Taglit Birthright Israel trip. And then he pops the question, which sounded something like this … “I know that large metropolitan areas offer community trips through local Federation’s, can we do the same in Monmouth County?” A pretty pricey toy … so we thought.
Still caught up in the passion of our conversation I said “Sure, why not?” A short time later, the Major Donor, Alan, announced to the Board of Directors that he plans on seeing this through and makes the first official pledge to the project. Another Major Donor and board member, Lauren, joined him as co-chair and a few others followed with their own pledges. Lauren has three children, all Birthright Israel alumni, and had been working on plans to engage families. We were sitting in Monmouth County, NJ, a community of 70,000 Jews which like many other communities struggles to figure out how to be relevant, how to engage new leaders, and how to raise additional funds to meet the growing needs in the community. And now on top of everything we are going to be like communities three times our size, and raise money on top of the declining annual campaign to sponsor buses to send young adults who may or may not exist to Israel for ten days?
Trading in the Ten-Speed for a Harley
Well there was no turning back, and how could we possibly afford such a pricey toy in Monmouth County? We determined that there was in fact a significant need in the community. More than 500 young adults were wait-listed during the prior season, and some members of our board had children and relatives who fit in the age bracket and had never been to Israel. In fact, some young adults were about to age out and miss their opportunity to participate. In about six months we raised the funds for our first trip and took advantage of a dollar for dollars match from the Taglit Birthright Israel Foundation. I went along with Alan to meet with people who had already made annual campaign pledges to ask them to support this project. Some people pledged a few more dollars, some matched their campaign gifts. We even incorporated the ask into our Super Sunday pitch. Alan would ask people to increase their gift by 10% to the annual campaign, and when they insisted on keeping their annual gift flat, he would tell them about “the project” and they would give $1,000! Alan likes to say “it’s amazing, nobody ever tells me no.”
Recruitment was a bit of a challenge, and we learned some lessons about promoting, but raising the funds was a primary concern the first year. In January of 2011, and June of 2011, we partnered with Metrowest and sent two groups of twenty young adults to Israel. Selfishly, I wanted to lead the trip. For a Jewish communal professional, no experience can top taking a group of young adults to the Western Wall for the first time or helping a 26 year old prepare for a Bar or Bat Mitzvah.
Around the time we were determining staff options for the trip (each trip includes two American staff) one of my colleagues suggested I set up a meeting with a young business owner, last name Moses of all last names. Moses was 28 at the time and he told me about his own Jewish journey which started when he was 23 as a participant on Taglit Birthright Israel. It changed his life. He is also involved with Jewish boy scouts and is an amazing leader. After a short meeting I asked Moses to lead our trip. I knew that while the experience may have changed his life, the experience of leading a group to Israel would complete his Jewish journey. Today, Moses has been the leader on two of three Monmouth community trips (our second trip was during his wedding) and he is now the co-chair of Monmouth County’s budding Young Leadership program. Moses’ most recent trip was a full bus for forty young adults from Monmouth County.
How Did Monmouth County Benefit?
I engaged two Major Donors to lead this initiative. Alan raised the money and Lauren supported our programs which promoted our trips and engaged parents of participants. It is critical that Jewish Federation’s identify meaningful ways to engage major donors. Every community has grandparents and parents like Alan and Lauren.
In less than two years we raised over $120,000 in supplemental dollars. Donors were required to sustain their giving to the annual campaign prior to supporting the project. Alan and Lauren inspired our donors to give more and support the Jewish Federation in a dynamic way, and the Federation was able to provide a return on their investment. Some donors donated $18, some donated $500, some donated $1,000 and some gave an additional $6,000. The bottom line is we demonstrated that donors feel good about giving more, and that is important.
The Parents and the Participants
In less than two years the Jewish Federation impacted the lives of 80 young adults and their parents. While some of the parents were already involved with the Jewish community, the majority had never heard of the Jewish Federation. The Jewish Federation is acquiring new donors and will be developing creative ways to engage the parents including inviting them on a community trip to Israel. The families and participants will always be linked to the Jewish Federation.
Events and Programs
Under Lauren’s leadership we developed creative programs to introduce people of all ages to the Jewish Federation and Taglit Birthright Israel at the same time. These included community wide events and orientations for all Monmouth County residents and their parents experience Taglit Birthright Israel … over 200 families per year.
Like many suburban communities engaging young leadership can be a challenge. Many young adults travel to metropolitan communities for work, and many move permanently to surrounding cities. This initiative has provided a portal for young adults to connect to the Jewish Federation. The community is also able to position itself to engage these young adults and develop lasting relationships with them, especially by selecting young leaders to lead the trips. The big challenge; however, is to demonstrate that many of these young adults are living Jewishly and participating in the Jewish community.
The Most Critical Way that a Jewish Federation Can Benefit
eJP recently published an article by Joel Frankel which generated a substantive dialogue about a number of issues. I applaud Joel for his efforts to assist Birthright Israel alumni to continue their journey. Too often these experiences end at the departure gate of Ben Gurion International; however, the paradigm is not unique to Taglit Birthright Israel. Let’s face it … our Jewish Federation system is not the greatest when it comes to engaging new people, especially people who are between the ages of 22 and 30. But there is hope … In response to Joel’s article, Mike Meyerheim opined from Israel “ … we need not bury the Federations, synagogues, Hebrew schools and call them useless or view them as historic relics, rather take a look at how we need to move them forward into today’s society and needs and make them useful for the present Jewish communities.”
Well I promise you this, and I think this is especially true for small and intermediate communities, if we start offering these opportunities, we will have the opportunity to capitalize on them. My colleague Keith Krivitzky likes to say “If you offer a compelling Jewish option, people will exercise that option.” Over the course of one year … 80 young adults (and families) from Monmouth County have exercised the option. I believe this is an option that then can help move our Federation system forward. When you bring a pricey toy (which is manageable for small and intermediate communities) to your community, and you identify leaders like Moses your Jewish Federation will need to move forward and we will need to develop creative ways to engage these young adults.
Evan Levitt is a graduate of Quinnipiac University and Gratz College where he earned a B.A. in Sociology and an M.A. in Jewish Communal Service. Evan has worked on behalf of the Jewish Federations in New Jersey and Philadelphia as a Senior Major Gifts Officer and FRD Director, along with Jewish National Fund. He looks forward to consulting with other communities that are interested in developing Taglit Birthright Israel initiatives like in Monmouth County. [email protected]